Toyota eyes Olympic platform to boost hydrogen tech

TOKYO (AFP) – Toyota showcases its next-generation hydrogen-powered Mirai model at yesterday’s Tokyo Motor Show, but with the technology still lagging behind electric, the Japanese firm is hoping for an Olympic boost.

The automaker is a lead sponsor of the global sporting event through 2024, and will include around 500 of the new fuel-cell vehicles in a 3,700-strong fleet to be used during the Tokyo Games next summer.

Adoption of fuel-cell electric vehicles (FCEVs) has been slow compared with electric cars powered by lithium-ion batteries.

By the end of 2018, there were just 381 hydrogen stations in service worldwide, while there were 5.2 million lithium-ion battery recharge stops. Supporters say the technology has plenty to offer in the transition to climate-friendly vehicles, including zero CO2 emissions from operation, faster recharging and more range per recharge.

But both vehicles and infrastructure remain expensive, in part because of the dangers posed by highly flammable and explosive hydrogen, while there are also concerns about the way the fuel is produced. Almost all current hydrogen production comes from fossil fuels, generating annual CO2 emissions equivalent to those of Britain and Indonesia combined, according to the International Energy Agency.

“At the moment the technology is not very mature,” said Head of consulting firm Carnorama Takeshi Miyao. “You need a lot of energy to produce hydrogen.” But some experts believe more efficient hydrogen production will follow naturally if demand for the vehicles increases.

“Once the market is there, this will enable large-scale investment in low-carbon hydrogen,” said Vice-President for hydrogen Asia-Pacific at the French firm Air Liquide Erwin Penfornis. And it’s that demand Toyota is hoping to stir at the Olympics next year, aiming to also boost the number of its Sora hydrogen buses on the roads of Tokyo from the current 15 to 100 by the summer.

“The idea is to show that hydrogen can be a part of everyone’s life,” Yasunobu Seki of Toyota’s Olympic Projects Department said.

Toyota released its first-generation Mirai at the end of 2014, and has had modest success so far, selling just 10,000 units of the model, whose name means “future” in Japanese.

Yesterday, it unveiled its second-generation model, promising up to 30 per cent more driving range.

The car is set to hit the market in late 2020. The firm is also boosting production capacity in Japan, with the goal of being able to deliver 30,000 fuel-cell vehicles a year by 2021, which is 10 times more than currently possible.

A hydrogen-powered Toyota Sora bus is seen in Tokyo. PHOTO: AFP